Online abuse and my children: A cautionary tale

Android for Kids
Android for Kids (Image credit: Russell Holly / Android Central)

They happen a lot, and for all different reasons. Lunchboxes left at home, bruises earned on the recess playground, and the occasional conference reminder hit my phone a few times a month. At the end of the last school year, I got a call from the school with a voice I didn't recognize. It didn't take me long to figure out this call wasn't like the others.

The administrator on the other end of the line was struggling to find the appropriate words to describe to me what had happened. By the time he had gotten around to the point, it became clear I had missed a few options in my mental "worst case scenario" list.

Joking in real life, shaming online

A photo of my oldest daughter changing in the locker room at school had appeared on Instagram. Two puke emoji sat on either side of her, with some text mocking her for not having an ideal body. The account, which at the time only had the one photo on it, was specifically created for shaming girls at this middle school. The profile description made this clear, just in case including "exposing_bitches" in the account name wasn't enough to get the point across.

By the end of the call, I was a whirlwind of emotions and could barely stand up. My daughter doesn't have an Instagram account, and had not yet seen the photo. The only reason the school knew was a friend of hers had seen the photo and, knowing it was wrong, brought it to the guidance counselor. The school claimed to be conducting an investigation to figure out exactly what had happened, and in the meantime a request had already been sent from the school to have Instagram remove the account.

How do I explain this to her? What do I do next?

It would be another three hours before she got out of school and my mind was still reeling. How do I explain this to her? What do I do next? How is this kind of thing still allowed to happen with such ease? Do I call the police now or after I've talked to my daughter? What happens to the kid who probably thought this was a mostly harmless prank? Am I really willing to potentially ruin the life of another child by ensuring she's expelled from this school and the police are involved?

When she got in the car, I tried to prompt her for some additional information without dropping this horrible situation in her lap right away. She appeared to be looking at the phone when the photo was taken, so it was possible she was aware something had happened. For obvious reasons, phones aren't allowed in the locker room, but she explained that occasionally it did happen. This time in particular, a pair of girls claimed to be pretending to take photos as a joke, including the occasional follow-up about posting these photos all over social media.

Two days passed before we finally sat my daughter down and explained to her everything that had happened, in hopes that cooperating with the school investigation would lead to useful information to provide her with. We let her decide how to proceed, explaining the potential consequences of involving the police and the Board of Education. She made those decisions with as much information as possible, and has moved on with a new awareness of the way some people around her could possibly behave in the future. She never saw the actual photo or the hurtful words associated with it, but this is going to be something that sticks with her — and really the whole family — for a long time.

How is this still a thing?

This was not some kind of wake up call for me. I didn't just discover online abuse and harassment; it's something I and countless others encounter every day. Women, particularly those with opinions on the internet, are regular targets for this kind of behavior and worse. I wasn't even particularly surprised by the location; school bullying is a never-ending conversation right now and teachers are frequently overwhelmed by or underprepared for these events.

What I did walk away from this incident with was a renewed set of questions regarding abuse and harassment online. We regularly see lip service paid to protecting users by the companies making money from these services, yet it still takes zero effort to find obvious examples of what seems like avoidable abuse on Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook every day.

The account my daughter's photo was posted to was a public account with text explicitly stating it was for shaming girls who attended this middle school. And it's far from the only one you can find just by searching for "exposing bitches" on Instagram. These accounts are easy to find and clearly violate the terms of use for this service, but in my personal experience, Instagram waited for 15 individual reports of abuse to act.

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Instagram is far from the only problem. Twitter regularly seems to ignore obvious threats when reported, despite clear violations of terms of service screenshotted and sent in every day. Facebook will automatically pull a photo if it's reported for nudity, but videos of beheadings have traveled through my feed for days before being pulled down. That's not to say any of this is easy, especially from a technical or automated perspective, but in many cases, it feels like these massive companies are not doing enough.

It's not just the technology or the companies building it. Parenting is often described as a combination of doing the stuff your parents did that worked and tips from other parents around you, but the age of the smartphone has a totally different set of rules. Smartphones are ubiquitous. By middle school peer pressure to own one is already set and none of these kids use the internet the way you or I do.

On some level, schools also have some responsibility to accept.

Regardless of age, many don't really understand how permanent the internet is and how severe the consequences of doing something for any kind of attention can be. Parents often aren't great at teaching these fundamentals, and schools aren't really covering the basics of online abuse and harassment as they introduce children to educational and social apps. There simply isn't enough education aimed at how to behave online or how to empathize with someone when all you have is a screen name.

On some level, schools also have some responsibility to accept. It's common now for after-school groups or multi-year programs in schools to use Instagram and Twitter as a positive outlet for kids. Photos of group activities are shared from these "team" accounts, so they can be shared by the students and appreciated by parents, with little to no time spent on discussing behavior on those services to match the positive experiences that brought them there in the first place. Just like the playground, if you encourage kids to "play" on the internet without a set of basic guidelines, boundaries are learned elsewhere and they aren't likely to line up with the values you had in mind.

What are we going to do now?

My daughter is going to pick up and keep going. She knows a lot more about how to handle this situation in the future, and we're constantly talking about how the internet works and what can be done to protect yourself and help educate others. She's sharing this information with friends, too. Things that seem simple, like not sharing your password with anyone and turning off location data when sharing photos online. I'm going to do as much as I can to collect those conversations and amazing content from experts everywhere so there's an easy-to-understand way for any kind of parent to start these same conversations at home.

I'm not going to solve abuse online, and neither are you. Some people really are terrible online because they enjoy it, and there's no such thing as an abuse-free environment when those people exist in the same space as you. It's a big, complex thing for all of us to constantly discuss, but that conversation isn't happening with a lot of kids until they're already on these services, assuming that conversation happens at all.

There are ways for parents who aren't tech-savvy or big social media users to be involved with their children's activities online, without being constant monitors of every little thing. There are tools to help your children protect themselves from many forms of abuse and help them understand the consequences for what may seem like a harmless prank or a quick post for attention. There are even ways for teachers to promote positive behavior while continuing to engage those students through these social networks, as well as enforce common-sense privacy and anti-bullying procedures created by the school.

Best Practices for staying safe on social media

Russell Holly

Russell is a Contributing Editor at Android Central. He's a former server admin who has been using Android since the HTC G1, and quite literally wrote the book on Android tablets. You can usually find him chasing the next tech trend, much to the pain of his wallet. Find him on Facebook and Twitter

  • Russel,
    Thanks for sharing this with us which is hard to do. I'm sure you are proud of your princess for picking herself up and plowing through it. Some People like to shame or insult others to cover up the emptiness inside or the horrible situation they have in their own lives. Power to you.
  • Hey Russel thanks for sharing this was timely for me.
  • Hope it helps :)
  • Russel, Thank you for sharing this, I have a 2 year old girl and a 5 month boy and it's in the back of my mind that this type of stuff happens and I will have to deal with it with my kids in the not so distant future. It just so hard knowing that you can only do so much for it to stop and either way it will continue to happen. Hopefully the schools will implement some sort of class or training for online social networks to help with this behavior. it should almost be a class like sex-ed something that might be uncomfortable to some but totally necessary. The trolling on the internet needs to be addressed on bigger scale, no idea how, but it needs to stop.
  • Honestly, I don't get it. What part of "Mind your own goddamn business" do these people not get? Are they hunting for likes or do they need to feel entitled just to make themselves feel better? I still don't get it and I probably never will unless someone who used to do this (and has been reformed) is willing to come forward and explain his/her thought process on why. Sorry for what your daughter had to go through and thanks for sharing.
  • Calm down with the indignation, unless you are only 8 years old and haven't gone through your teen years yet. Because everyone is an A-hole in their teen years.
  • Sorry. When I hear such things, I usually feel irritated before getting sensible. Doesn’t make me any less irritated over what she had to go through, though. I don’t understand some people.
  • No, sorry. Being a teen is not a valid excuse for behavior like this. It. Is. Wrong. Full stop. There are a ton of people, teens and adults, who did not do stuff like this. Stop making excuses for awful people.
  • Right! Not all kids are doing this. NO excuse for this behavior.
  • Pretty much. If you have to hurt others just to make yourself feel better, you need help. Seriously. This is not normal.
  • Na, just because you're a jerk doesn't mean that all, or even most people are jerks.
  • No, not "everyone". Sorry if you were and I guess everyone you knew was. But not in my experience, and it is not required. Fantastic parenting and faith kept me grounded. Unfortunately, both of these things seem to be waning.
  • That's actually not true - and it's provable. In fact, in this very story you have some proof - one kid who had the guts to speak out and do something about the matter.
  • Not necessarily. It has to do with your upbringing, which you're showing now. This is a different world that when I grew up for sure!
  • Thank you for sharing this, Russel. I have a six-year-old daughter, and the thought that she may have to go through something like this when she gets older terrifies me every day. We teach her responsibility and to talk to someone if she feels threatened, but it's still not something a parent wants to hear from or about their child.
  • Thank you for sharing; as the father of a girl starting middle school this year, talk about phones has heated up... There are plenty of positives of course, but understanding balance, right and wrong, unintended consequences of actions... It's all part of the decision process. This doesn't make me for or against, but yes - educating properly ...
  • I hate social media. Can't do it. I'm truly sorry this happened.
  • It's sad how this continues to happen year after year. The basics of bullying haven't changed since I was in school many years ago, but the tech and the outlets for it have. With a son in high school, and an autistic son in middle school, it never ceases to amaze me the ways kids come up with to harass one another. My oldest is one of those kids who has some friends and tries to mind his own business. He's active in football and wrestling, and just an all-around good kid. People have resorted to making fun of legs and even how high his sox are. Feuds that happen in school just don't stay there until the next day like it used to - they follow the kids home thru text, IM, Instagram, and so forth. The same things are also happening in middle school. The "reasons" used to bully someone are just stupid. My youngest gets it just for being different than the other kids. Elementary school was fine for the most part - most of the kids had known him since they were all very young and generally accepted him as he was. Middle school involved kids from 4 other feeder elementaries coming in that didn't know him, didn't care to know him, and just targeted him. The tech is a double edged sword. On one hand, it's been helpful in identifying kids who have done stuff in an incident, and provides many opportunities to augment the classroom and extracurriculars. In others, it makes the kids' lives very difficult. I don't envy kids today. You have it much harder than I did. I hope parents become more aware and keep tabs on what their kids are doing online and that kids feel comfortable talking to their parents when things like this happen.
  • Thank you for sharing something so personal and private with all the readers. I was deeply hurt and upset for you and your daughter when reading this. Unfortunately, bullying has been around forever, and I can attest to it, being bullied in middle school while growing up. Now with social media, bullying has taken a scary and even more harmful turn. I am glad you're bring more attention and awareness to this issue.
  • I feel for you as I have 2 kids to worry about. In my opinion, it is a parenting problem - Parents ignore their kids at home and they go to school and create such problem. Also, there should be a way to shame the parents for their kids behavior. Similar to if a kid gets a speeding ticket, parents premium goes up. Many times, bad kid gets free ride being juvenile because no one gets the shame publicly.
  • This had to be a tough article to share Jerry. Thanks for writing it.
  • That would be Russell, who also deserves a medal for his handling of the whole situation.
  • Cripes, sorry about that both Jerry and Russell.
  • I don't have kids, so I can only imagine what going through all this has been like for your daughter, you, and the rest of your family. Keep your chins up, I really hope nothing remotely like this ever happens to any of you again.
  • Thanks for sharing that, Russell.
    I'm happy to hear how mature your daughter is with handling this situation and how supportive you are.
  • This was really painful for me. Being a friend of Russell's who spends a lot of time with this kids... his daughter is really a genuinely awesome kid. NO ONE deserves this, particularly not a child :-(
  • It's also difficult to teach young kids this is wrong when the president of the US has famously resorted to shaming women online based on their looks and people have justified him or defended him for partisan reasons.
  • You really don't want to go there, especially considering Bill me
  • Obviously completely unacceptable. Sorry to hear that happened to your family.
  • So sorry to read this Russel. Please let your daughter know that for every jerk out there on the internet (and in middle school) there are thousands of us who think that behavior is appalling and who support her and anyone else going through this. We all must take an active stand against harassment whenever and wherever we see it if we want this to stop.
  • Thanks Russell, this was an interesting read and one that hit home for me. My daughter has experienced some bullying herself so I totally understand where you are coming from with this article.
  • Your daughter sounds like she's got a good head on her shoulders, Russell. You guys are obviously doing something right. :) Also, the kid who brought this to the attention of the guidance counselor took a big social risk by doing that. That is the kind of friend that a kid is very lucky to have, especially in a turbulent, confusing time like middle school.
  • I'm really sorry that this has happened to your family but I'm grateful that you shared this to help people acknowledge this.
  • Coming from a parent of a Senior HS girl, I can tell you that it isn't easy. I hope that there are severe consequences for the girls who took the photo.
  • I'm curious, how long did it take for the page to be taken down once Instagram was notified? You mentioned they had more than one complaint. There's no excuse for a delay with something so blatant.
  • It was about 12 hours.
  • Russell, thanks for opening up with this. While it's encouraging to see the strength your daughter must have, it must be heartbreaking as well to understand why she is strong. Older generations like to pick on younger generations because "we had things harder..." We really didn't have it harder. The things our kids face socially and from the world in general is astoundingly harder today than we had it. Because bad does not evolve into good. It devolves into worse depths. Things don't improve until things deeeep inside change. I think our kids are stronger than we think. It's just....this is an ugly thing to have to deal with in the right way. Being obviously removed from the situation, it seems that it was handled as well as it could have been. Good job...I don't know you and just don't want to sound patronizing.
  • On the tech note, "safety" that is "provided" to us is by and large lip service. From online entities to corporate policies to the government acting on "your" behalf, safety is a joke. The recent article about the TSA is another example. Let's just call it what it is, it's relief from liability. Online can be safer, it just impedes income. Same with every other bone headed policy in place to protect you, thought up by pencil pushers whom never have been on the floor, at the site, or in the field so that they can understand that their "guidelines" make things more unsafe. Liability drives a LOT of dumb restrictions, not safety. It's OUR responsibility to be safe we can't trust that to anyone, although it would be nice to not have to be so vigilant.
  • I agree that personal responsibility should always be the first step, but on some level it’s important to remember the other groups involved actually WANT to do right by these kids. It’s not easy, and in general these systems aren’t meant to be a sole source of action, but with the right tools it’s possible to see some good come from them.
  • Russell,
    As a parent of a daughter and middle school teacher, this is something I worry about and, unfortunately, see on a regular basis. I agree with the previous post that pointed out how brave your daughter's friend is for not being a bystander.
    Thank you for sharing this personal story. Social media is such a powerful, effective way to promote, share, and present; here is hoping that schools and parents are able to work together to continually address how to act for those unfortunate instances when users shame, harass, and intimidate.
  • What an awful experience. I'm glad that your daughter has the resilience to get through this. I have a lot less sympathy for the kids who do this, and their parents, than you do. yes, there are certain aspects of this that people who are not savvy and / or mature might miss. But, lying to people is just wrong - and from what you say, these kids lied in order to get the picture. You don't need to be tech savvy or mature to know that. As a parent, you also don't need to understand much about technology to understand that 1. bullying is wrong. Period. Full stop. It doesn't matter if it's on line or off. and 2. When you are using terms like <deleted because of the filter> etc. that IS bullying and wrong. It doesn't matter whether it's on line or off. Printing out the picture and hanging it on the bulletin board the local gym would be no different. So, I do agree that kids and parents need more education, especially in how to defend themselves. But the first step is to accept that we are all responsible for basic decency. Where fat shaming is unacceptable, fat shaming on-line is a non-issue. Where calling people disgusting names is unacceptable, you have less of a problem on line. You hear a lot of "if you would not say it to the person's face, don't say it on line." The problem is that generally the people who do this on line WOULD say it to people's faces. The only thing that holds them back is that they figure they can't deal with the possible consequences. Well, the same consequences should apply to doing this on-line. Oh, and any one, kid or adult, who thinks that posting locker room pictures in public for the purpose of shaming someone is a "harmless prank" is NOT a decent person.
  • This made me almost cry! I don't have kids and I'm not around bullying (I work with a bunch of old men) but I have done the screenshotting and reporting on instagram and twitter. I myself actually had a post taken down on facebook (someone had called me an angry tranny on IG and I had posted it) Ironic, but, it's the right direction I suppose. Your daughter is beautiful.
  • On a related note, I hope that the kids who reported this is being protected from retaliation. Lots of people still look at reporting stuff like this as "snitching".
  • Just a sad reality of growing up in a social media world. Most kids and even adults are keyboard warriors now and would never say the things they type to someone's face. I have 4 kids in intermediate, middle school and high school. My son in high school said there is an Instagram account for the school that the kids use to trash talk and make fun of other students with. Just pathetic..
  • Thank you for sharing this and your daughter also as I'm sure you didn't post this without her permission. I'm glad she never had fo see the hurtful photo. The internet and Social Media have totally changed kids worlds today for both the good and the bad. I'm sorry she had to go through this and thankful for the friend that took it to the counselor and the school that informed you before she found out.
  • When we have a POTUS who openly sexually harasses women and bullies everyone who doesn't kiss his @ss, I wouldn't be surprised if the kind of behavior expressed in this article goes up exponentially in the next 4 years. I'm sorry this happened to your daughter. It shouldn't happen to anyone, period.
  • I'm so sorry that this happened to your daughter. I hope they find the kids that did this and expel them. This is absolutely unacceptable.
  • It's sad when people have to try and embarrass others to make themselves feel better about their sorry selves.
    Russell, props for being a great dad and to your daughter for being mature when others are not.
    Why do social media companies allow this kind of garbage? Oh yeah... restrictions would reduce profits, and hiring people to monitor the cesspool would also cut into profits. It's bad enough that so many people are CONSUMED with this stuff, then you have it wide open so anybody can post anything. Nice.
  • Russell, Thank you for sharing. This is such a hot topic. I'm a father of two boys. My oldest starts middle school in September and he is bidding for a phone everyday. My wife and I refuse to by one for reasons such as this. When I was a kid, I did not have to deal with social bullying. However, with the change in time, kids deal with this on a regular basis. I'm happy to hear your daughter is doing well. Good luck with the new school year.
  • Thanks for sharing and enlightening us to what we should be aware of with the new technological world our children are involved in. It is significantly similar to what we have all seen with bullying to some extent, but now instead of getting mocked at one instance in time and passing rumors, it goes instantly and sometimes permanently out there to everyone at once; it's a shame.
  • I've been a school counselor for 15 years, and I wish I could tell you this kind of thing is an isolated incident. We spend so much time addressing problems that start online and end up in school or start in school and are exacerbated by social media. With the federal and state push for test scores, schools have very little time to teach the kind of interpersonal and empathy skills that are desperately needed. School counselors and social workers do what we can, but it often feels like putting band-aids on a crack in Hoover Dam. Kudos to Russell for bringing light to a painful experience so that others can learn from it.
  • I'm a bit shocked and impressed that nobody came in with "Hey, bullying serves a purpose. It toughens you up for life.". This is a common retort from those that apparently think bullying is a good thing. They often view adolescence as a sort of emotional hunger games where the "tough" deserve to rule and weak and sensitive are put in their place.
  • That was a different era. We didn't have the internet back then,
  • What are you talking about? I'm talking about the Internet.
  • You're a good dad
  • Thanks Russell for writing this timely and important article. I have a 9yo girl heavily involved in YouTube/Minecraft/Sims and worry too about what conversations are going on in chat etc. Will strive to be more vigilant!
  • Thanks for sharing Russell... A tuff situation for all involved... My older daughter is 15 now.. Her school has a zero tolerance to any type of online offline bullying.. A similar situation arose when she was in 8th grade. Police where involved and the child involved was suspended 2 days.. A strict policy helps deter alot of this type of stuff... Also her school has multiple mandatory classes involving internet safety and security...
  • Hey Russell, I'm sorry that happened. In the spirit of your last thought, I'd love to have a 30 minute teen-focused presentation on internet safety, security, data retention, all that stuff you are talking about here. This really hit home when my son said he wanted to share his Snapchat password to keep up his streaks over summer; put together with your daughter's story that's pretty scary stuff. Anyway - do you (or the community) know of such a presentation? My wife is a teacher so anything she (or her principal, or a civics teacher) could offer would be amazing.
  • Does the school have a School Resource Officer or some sort of partnership with the municipal police department? They can often be a terrific place to start. In addition, your county prosecutor's office may offer programs to educate students, staff, and parents. The district in which I teach had someone from our prosecutor's office present on hate and prejudice, but a big component of the presentation focused on social media. It was pretty eye-opening.
  • Russell,
    I am sorry this happened to you and your family. It's never an easy situation to deal with. Your daughter is the real champion and kudos to you for handling it in a proper manner. I was bullied in grade school as were my children. Earning my degree in Psychology, I learned a few things that have been proven through research. First, kids do it generally because of the way they were raised or the friends they were allowed to surround themselves with. I always closely watch who my kids choose as friends. Often times the parents don't even know. Not enough parents are active in their children's lives, which includes their choice of friends. Also, sometimes, children will lash out at other kids they perceive as being weaker than they are because they were bullied as well and feel inferior. Then there is the hormonal issue with all kids up until they learn how to deal with their hormones. I have an eight year old son who is completely hormonal and tends to bully his younger sisters and other kids at the playground. He was raised correctly by two educated parents, but has objective defiance disorder. His biggest problem is that he is doing this to gain approval from others because he is behind maturity wise as well. Through all of our patience and a lot of training, he has mellowed out a lot. We are training and raising him to be a protector of other kids and it appears to be working. Instead of getting aggressive like he used to, he talks to other kids and tries to help them. The point being, we don't generally know what's going on with other kids, all the way up until they are adults, as their brains develop until they're about 25. I don't know you or your daughter personally, but judging by the way you both handled the situation, it suggests that you're raising her in a proper manner. You should be proud of both you and her. Keep up the good work. May you and your family be blessed as you carry on and good luck in your future endeavors.
  • Great read Russell, my kids are too young to have these thijgs happen but I fear it will only get worse by the time they are teens, cyber bullying can be devestating for some kids. Hope your daughter doesn't have to deal with anymore cases like this. It's not necessary! and part of the reason I hate the fact kids are getting cell phones with cameras and so easy to share with anyone else. Gonna have to get my kids text and call only phones lol
  • Jeebus man, this is just a ******* horror show. So sorry and your daughter sounds like a strong young woman.